From Meatless Mondays to weekday vegetarians, VB6 to reducetarianism, there’s no shortage of imaginative ways to eliminate meat from our diets. But the next major food trend could well be meat-free meat.

That’s right, meat-free meat. Like the Beyond Burger, billed as “the world’s first plant-based burger that looks, cooks and satisfies so much like beef, it’s in the meat section of grocery stores”. Or “the world’s first chicken produced without the animal”, which comes courtesy of Memphis Meats and is a textbook case of a “clean” or cultured meat – one made using animal cell cultures, not the animals themselves.

Virgin Unite, sustainia, go explorer, Impossible Foods

Virgin Unite, sustainia, go explorer, Impossible Foods

Indeed, from the Good Food Institute to the Modern Agriculture Foundation, tech savvy organisations around the world are exploring alternatives to meat – and it isn’t hard to figure out what’s driving the herd.

The production of meat and dairy covers 30 per cent of the planet’s land surface, and is a major source of water and air pollution. With global meat consumption expected to double by 2050 thanks to population growth and increasing affluence, especially in the developing world, the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industries is expected to worsen.

“The days of voracious demand for meat are numbered as it is no longer sustainable,” one recent food trends report put it. “Brands now have the opportunity to substitute animal meats for vegetables without compromising flavour or texture. This contributes to saving animal lives and is aligned to a trend that will become massive in a few years.”

Perhaps the best known example of this trend is Impossible Foods, a California-based startup whose investors include Bill Gates. According to its founder and CEO, Patrick Brown: “We need a better way to produce meat and dairy products that can feed a growing population without wrecking our environment. The best way to do that is to make delicious, nutritious meat and dairy products from plants.”

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Last year, the company launched its trademark product – a plant-based burger – at celebrity chef David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi restaurant in New York, before making it available in a handful of high-end restaurants. Earlier this year, a chain called Bareburger also started offering the so-called Impossible Burger at its location near New York University – perhaps the first sign that meat-free meat is about to go mainstream.

According to Impossible Foods, its burger is made from simple, all-natural ingredients such as wheat, coconut oil and potatoes. What, besides the novelty, makes it so popular, then? An ingredient called heme, apparently. “Heme is a basic building block of life on Earth, including plants, but it’s uniquely abundant in meat,” Impossible Foods explains. “We discovered that heme is what makes meat smell, sizzle, bleed, and taste gloriously meaty.

Consider it the “magic ingredient” that makes our burger a carnivore’s dream.”

Indeed, according to Fortune magazine: “Heme is what makes meat taste like meat – it looks like beet juice and naturally has iron. The molecule is found in the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants, but the company makes it by fermenting yeast, which it says is a more economically feasible and environmentally friendly option.”

So, by combining proteins from plants like honeydew melon and coconut, Impossible Foods has created a patty that looks, smells and tastes very much like ground beef. And its aim is to market it to meat eaters – that is, to promote it alongside the beef burger, not as a veggie burger. In fact, Brown recently told Fortune that his mission was “to provide the billions of people around the world who love meat and can’t imagine a life without it a new and better choice”.

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If Impossible Foods can do that – and inspire more companies to get into meat-free meat – the consequences could be staggering. Just consider the potential environmental impact. According to the company, it requires 99 per cent less land and 85 per cent less water to make an Impossible Burger, while emitting 89 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional animal-derived beef.

What’s more, requiring less land and water makes plants a cost-effective alternative the producing meat and dairy-like products. And then there’s the social consequence of steering people away from eating meat: Impossible Foods says its products are free of cholesterol, hormones, antibiotics and slaughterhouse contaminants. 

“Clean” chicken nuggets and plant-based burgers may not have entered the mainstream yet. But it’s surely a matter of time. And getting the world to go meat-free no longer looks impossible.


This innovation is part of the Global Opportunity Explorer – a platform which offers direct access to leading sustainable innovations around the world. The Explorer is a joint project of Sustainia, DNV GL and the UN Global Compact. Rooted in over five years of research involving 17,000 business leaders and 17 expert panels, it guides you through hundreds of solutions and market opportunities which address the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). Discover more on goexplorer.org, and follow the latest news @sustainia and #GOexplorer.

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